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Purple coneflower

Echinacea purpurea

This flower needs no introduction. During my first-ever gardening escapade, I sowed Texas wildflower seeds all over my bare back yard (in January!), and native Purple Coneflower was among them. They never came up but the next year I sowed the seeds in a prepared bed in fall. By spring it seemed like hundreds came up. I discarded many and potted many others, giving some away to friends that summer.

Since the seeds germinated in spring, it would most likely be another year before they bloomed (since many perennials take about a year to reach blooming stage from seed, a disappointing fact that many new gardeners like myself have to learn the hard way!). But there is an upside to this phenomenon: watching a plant go through all of its stages. Purple coneflower often needs a process called stratification to germinate. This isn’t always the case, but in my first experiment it was. This means it needs a period of alternating periods of cold-moist and warm. In spring each germinating seed makes a small rosette gradually growing to a larger one with long leaves and spends the summer looking low and plain. In fall the leaves start to disappear or otherwise look ratty. Don’t throw them away! This is natural, they will return.

In spring the rosette reappears and most start flowering by early summer; in Austin, my beautiful flowers came up for the first time this May. Purple coneflower will continue to bloom throughout the summer if deadheaded and kept relatively moist (but not too much!). They tend to get attacked with spider mites here and the leaves look a little pathetic by August but they’ll still try and keep blooming. I cut most of mine back by late October.

In fall larger plants can be divided to make even more for next year. If you dig them up you can see that the leaves are held together by “nodes” (my very unscientific term), and there will be several nodes on a larger plant. Just separate these and plant the different leaf groups. Again, the leaves will disappear in fall usually but don’t worry, the roots are still alive.

There are all sorts of Purple Coneflower varieties, some with different colors, but I am still a fan of the brazen purple and warm orange. It is absolutely one of the most perfect color harmonies and stands out in the garden. Even amongst the purple and orange types there are many different varieties, some taller, some smaller. But really, even the native types grow all different sizes. You can have some flowers nearly 3 inches above the ground and others towering at almost three feet. I can’t figure out why, but even in the same bed I had different ladies.

This fall I’ve sown seeds of “Ruby Giant”, and these germinated within a week indoors (I have no idea why they did this and the native kind are just stubborn), but the bonus is that they may bloom this spring. I have learned that purple coneflowers interbreed so even if I saved the seed next summer from this special variety I may not get the same plant the following year. It’s fine by me, just as long as I have this lovely wildflower in my garden, magnetizing butterflies from every direction.

In an old botanical description I found, this flower was listed as Rudbeckia purpurea and the common name was Purple Rudbeckia. Most often, when we now look up Rudbeckia we find Rudbeckia hirta, the flower popularly known as Black-eyed Susan. Both Purple Coneflowers and Black-eyed Susans are in the Aster family, and are very similar except for their colors. Their leaves have the same low-lying fuzzy, grainy texture. Echinacea purpurea has long been cultivated in Europe (just like our other native Texan, Phlox drummondii) as a cottage garden favorite, but is also just one of eight Echinaceas native to the U.S., most of which were prairie flowers from the Dakotas through Texas. Check them out at the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower site.

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